Stress and the Nursing Mother

The birth of a baby comes to us as a revelation in many ways.  It opens the door to a level of love and commitment most of us have never before experienced.  What comes as a greater surprise to many of us, though, is how stressful such a joyful event can be.Experts tell us that major life changes, whether negative like loss of a job or a loved one, or positive like welcoming a new baby to the family, are among life’s most stressful events.  In his book, Stress Free Living, (DK Publishing, Inc., 2000), psychologist Dr. Trevor Powell writes that new parents “can expect to have less sleep, less money, less time for going out and relaxing, extra work and less sleep.”  Clearly, this is a recipe for stress.  And the mother may feel a double whammy because she experiences stress from both physical sources (recovery from labor and delivery, hormonal shifts, and sleep deprivation, to name a few) and emotional sources like self-doubt, concerns about balancing her own needs with those of her changing family, and the need to redefine her self-image.

The stress of being a parent doesn’t end after the first few months.  Because children are constantly growing and changing, their parents must also continually adapt.  The mother and her partner must redefine their relationship on an ongoing basis as they strive to meet the changing needs of their children and to function as a team.  The expenses of child rearing may strain the family financially, another major source of stress.  And these factors are added to the day-to-day problems and annoyances that stress us all.

We all know that stress doesn’t make us feel good, and we may have seen that it interferes with the way our bodies function.  But don’t believe those who tell you that stress can prevent you from breastfeeding successfully.  As Martha Sears, R.N. and William Sears, M.D., point out in The Breastfeeding Book (Little, Brown & Co., 2000), “You can deliver enough milk to your baby even under the most stressful conditions.  After all, for centuries mothers have successfully nursed their babies during wars, famines, and floods.”  However, chronic stress can make breastfeeding (and life in general) less enjoyable and more difficult.

Studies have shown that breastfeeding women have reduced levels of stress hormones in their bodies and enhanced levels of hormones that foster feelings of well-being.  However, chronic stress can reduce this benefit.  The Searses explain that, “the adrenal hormones that surge when you’re overstressed can interfere with the hormones that make milk. . . . Chronic unresolved stress throws off the

biochemical equilibrium of your body, explaining why some women notice a reduction in their milk supply following a family crisis . . . and also why unhealthy reactions to the daily grind can zap a milk supply.”  Since stress is unavoidable for the parents of young children, how can we minimize its negative effects?  The experts offer the following advice:

♥ “Realize that you can’t control situations, but you can control your reactions to them,” advise the Searses.  “Children get sick.  People lose jobs.  Some setbacks in life are beyond your control. Yet what is always within your control is how you react to those setbacks.”

♥ Seek Out Information.  The more information you have about a situation, Dr. Powell suggests, “the more prepared you will be to deal with it, and therefore the less likely you will be to worry.” Read a parenting or breastfeeding book, attend a nursing mothers meeting, or call your counselor – all are sources of reliable information that can help put unreasonable fears and concerns to rest.

♥ Focus on Solutions, Not Problems.  “This destressor is especially valuable for breastfeeding mothers,” write the Searses.  Instead of letting sore nipples or a reduction in milk supply defeat you, find help in working out a solution.  The very act of doing so will make you feel empowered and less stressed.  “Believe in your body,” the Searses advise. “It will work for you.”  Dr. Powell has similar advice.  “Try to visualize the result you want to achieve,” he writes, “then work out what you need to do to get there.”  For many nursing mothers, seeking out positive voices is critical because our culture is filled with discouraging messages about breastfeeding.  Take advantage of the knowledge and support your nursing mothers counselor has to offer!

♥ Keep a Sense of Proportion.  “Don’t miss sleep or waste energy over life’s annoyances that reduce your energy for making milk and caring for your baby,” suggest the Searses.

♥ Feel Good about Yourself.  “Each day remind yourself that you are doing the most important job in the world: nurturing a human being.  And you are doing what no one else in the whole world can do: make milk that is custom tailored to meet the needs of your baby.  Each day (or even at each feeding) remind yourself that the milk you are giving your infant is going to make your baby smarter and healthier. . . . You are very important.”

♥ Take Care of Yourself.  Although your time may never have seemed more limited, it is critical that you spend some of it on yourself.  “Chronic, unresolved stress exhausts your brain’s neurotransmitters, keeping you from feeling good and thinking clearly,” the Searses explain. Relaxation allows your brain to recuperate.  Seek out activities that relax the body and the mind, generating endorphins, hormones that promote pleasurable feelings.  Take a bath, spend a few minutes walking or doing other moderate exercise, listen to music, or practice a hobby or other activity that makes you feel good – the fact that you feel relaxed afterwards is more important than what you do.  Try to train yourself to focus on positive images of your baby, which will “get your milk-making hormones flowing,” the Searses advise.  “As a bit of preventive medicine, as soon as you feel a disturbing thought coming on, quickly switch channels and fill your mind with positive thoughts before negative ones sink in.”  And don’t forget your physical health.  Good nutrition can help your body fight the negative effects of stress, advises Dr. Powell.

♥ Laugh and Play A Lot.  “There is a biochemical basis for the belief that laughter is your best medicine,” write the Searses, because “laughter stimulates those ‘feel good hormones,’ endorphins.”  They recommend three enjoyable activities that have been shown to increase endorphins and are good for the nursing mother – exercise, laughter and sex.

♥ Seek Out Support and Share Your Feelings.  It is important not to bottle up your feelings and to share both the positive and the negative emotions you are experiencing, advises Dr. Powell.  Find a trusted sounding board who will validate your feelings, but help you recognize unrealistic expectations of parenthood, your family and yourself.  Of course, it is important that you share your feelings with your partner, but sometimes
a more objective view is valuable.  Your counselor has been trained to listen in a
nonjudgmental way and to offer support for your feelings, whatever they may be.

It is important to remember that what ultimately determines the quality of our lives as new parents is not the stresses that we face, but the way in which we face them.  With the help of tools like those above, we can avoid the cycle of worry, frustration and fatigue that can overwhelm us and focus instead on the positive and joyous aspects of this irreplaceable time in our children’s lives.

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